This is an account of my thoughts and experiences watching from Iowa as the recent North Bay fires descended upon my home county and hometown of Sonoma, California; it takes place between October 9 and 16, 2017. I wrote each of these sections on the days they describe and chose to edit only lightly in order to maintain the uncertainty, fear, and hope that I experienced throughout the week. (I took the above photo during my most recent visit home in December 2015.)
I can almost smell the fire as I wake up.
My husband is out of town for the three-day weekend. When I see the photos of suburban Santa Rosa, grey and charred and depressingly reminiscent of a postapocalyptic neighborhood in the Fallout game series, I don’t want to talk to anyone.
For the first time in years, my Facebook feed is organized. Updates from the North Bay on top, everything else scrunched at the bottom. Friends marking themselves “safe” from the Tubbs Fire, the Nuns Fire, the Adobe Fire. There is nothing but fire.
My eyes glaze as I read post after post about evacuations, friends who have already lost their homes, how to learn more.
I text Sonoma’s zip code to the county sheriff’s department for updates: 95476 to 888-777.
At one p.m., I finally hear from my mom.
“In case you’re wondering, we’re fine here so far. It smells smoky,” she tells my sister and me, before informing us that our family friend’s house and neighborhood were destroyed.
“They are safe, though,” she adds.
Those haunting, postapocalyptic photos are of their neighborhood. I can’t look at them again.
My family is scattered across the country like teardrops in the open ocean, so far away by distance but emotionally one and the same forevermore. Extended family on the east coast, me in Iowa, my sister in Southern California, my parents in Sonoma. Those of us alone and out of danger are horrified. My parents are in danger and my mom hints at nothing amiss except the bag she’s packed, and that my dad hasn’t packed enough.
The alert says they’re evacuating Pets Lifeline. Less than a mile away. Hours ago, Pets Lifeline was the evacuation center for small pets.
“I’m not worried,” the text representing my mom’s projective thoughts reads. I nod, but don’t reply.
The trailer for the upcoming Star Wars movie premieres that night. My sister will love the Porg, so I immediately slide a screenshot from the trailer into our group text of it and Chewbacca. Anything to break the tension, to reintroduce any kind of normalcy we can.
“Does Chewie eat the Porg?” my mom asks.
Indeed. Things are almost normal.
But even as regularity persists in our hearts, it’s unnerving how utterly routine everything is in Iowa. No mountains, no hills. What would fire be like here? Is our only exposure to fire the hazy, yellow-tinted skies as smoke billows in from the north, signaling its distress, as we idle, comment on the inconvenience, and go about our days with the promise of blue skies in the back of our minds?
Every break between sheriff’s department alerts is a long breath of cool ocean air before I’m dunked back down into the water once more.
My mom and I compare notes about all the local celebrities who’ve helped others escape their homes or lost their own: Noah Lowry (escaped), Barry Bonds (helped), Levi Leipheimer (lost). “I’ve done nothing,” she writes under a thick blanket of smoke. “Feeling guilty.”
I don’t say that she shouldn’t feel guilty. I don’t say that she has no reason to feel guilty because she could so easily be the next one in such dire need. I don’t say a lot more.
Instead, I send her a link to an article detailing which evacuation centers need supplies. If helping others helps her, then let it help us all.
In late 2008, just as I was settling into my freshman year of college, I found I was still on my high school music department’s email list when I received a message about the sweatshirts that all marching band members would have to buy as part of the uniform that year. Not fully assimilated at my new school, I replied to the email and requested one Sonoma Valley High School Dragon Band sweatshirt.
The comfort I felt wearing it then was nothing compared to the comfort it provides me now.
Whenever I run into the bathroom at work to read the latest update from the sheriff’s department, I am Sonoma. When I’m shelving books, I am Sonoma. I glance at our library’s copy of The Girls, written by a Sonoma author, Emma Cline, and feel a sudden warmth.
Teardrops in the ocean. We’re not so far apart after all.
I’m angry that some of my friends who marked themselves “safe” on Facebook received a text message at 12:30 in the morning to evacuate. Whether they wanted to show everyone they were a part of something big, or whether they truly thought they were safe, it doesn’t matter now. Safety comes and goes with the winds that bring the fires ever-closer to Sonoma, hopeful ebbs coupled with disastrous flows as the “safe” messages are soon replaced by photos of the myriad cars streaming out of town. The ebb of maintained community, the flow of panic. My parents are not yet among them.
In the group text, I bring up the message we all received from AT&T telling us they won’t be charging overages through Saturday, and we joke about the ways we could use up as much cellular data as possible. Then my mom sends a photo of her at work, out of town, wearing an N95 particulate mask to shield her from the smoke lingering outside.
The sheriff’s department interrupts our brief moment of solace. Advisory evacuations of northern Sonoma are underway.
“I’m on my way home,” my mom writes next. “I don’t want Dad to be alone.”
Thursdays are my days off from work. I wake up at 7:30 a.m. Who can catch up on sleep when an alert could come in at any minute that could signal my parents’, my city’s, impending doom?
I want nothing more than to be at work, where cell coverage is sparse and text messages dissipate in the infuriatingly clean air, eighteen hundred miles from the havoc wrought upon Sonoma, where friends are swapping masks for inhalers in hopes that one of their chosen remedies will protect them from the smoke, while even those who evacuated long before sleep on cold wooden floors in San Francisco (or even farther south) and can barely go outside not as much for the choking air but because every time they look to the north, they remember what they left behind, and try even harder to remember what they may have lost forever.
My parents find a hotel room for the weekend in Carpinteria, which is where my sister lives, just south of Santa Barbara. I suggest it because, more than likely, there won’t be many vacancies near the Bay Area, but also because I think it would be nice for at least some of our family to be together during this time.
They never use the word “evacuate.” Evacuating is for victims, people in affected areas, people who’ve had sheriff’s deputies knock on their doors and don’t have time to say anything but, “Get out! Now!” because those residents have been awaiting this moment, those residents have been packed for days, those residents made arrangements out of town.
My mom uses the phrase “skip town,” as if she’s the one who’s done something wrong.
They say the wind was supposed to be bad the previous night, but it wasn’t, because the only alert this morning concerns Napa County. I wonder if the eerie quiet I’ve felt in Iowa is the same as what some in Sonoma must be experiencing.
I relax; I feign normalcy. I retweet some information from a Sonoma reporter I recently started following. I allow myself to feel hopeful that this might end soon. I take my planned vacation, a six-hour drive not unlike the one my parents took the day before. As my lower back twinges in the unfamiliar cloth seat of the rental car, this is the thought that keeps me from complaining, even in my head. My parents just did this drive, and they were leaving something behind, not running toward something. My parents just did this drive. My parents…
The quiet is bad.
My eyes spring open before I am ready.
One quarter-mile from my parents’ house.
Did they water it down before they left?
What did they take with them?
Do they know what might happen?
Are they prepared?
What are we about to lose?
I take back all those retweets from the previous morning, feeling like I tricked anyone who read them.
For the first time, the group texts abruptly end.
For the first time, the distance may as well be nothing. For the first time, I may as well be able to peer outside my friend’s open window, inhale lungfuls of smoke, and gaze upon the hellscape no longer beyond the horizon. For the first time, I can’t help feeling that I have everything to lose.
I read that the high school’s evacuation center is still open, has still been open. Every few hours, I learn that another bar on the Plaza, which was under a voluntary evacuation earlier in the week, has reopened. They still don’t have electricity, but they are welcoming weary post-evacuees, entertaining, and giving away food and drink in spite of it all.
The late morning text alert I receive is, for once, not an alert. Press briefing. One p.m. Fairgrounds. The same as every day.
Evacuations are being lifted across the valley, but the air quality is still terrible. Roads are still blocked off, but rain may be coming soon.
Two good days in a row feels like a trick, so I stay silent on social media. One errant retweet could bring this all back. But even still, I feel the distance between myself and Sonoma growing again. The flames can’t reach me here.
I take a deep breath, waiting to be immersed in a fiery expanse of endless dread once more. I am measured, cautious, unsure. And then I exhale, purely, deeply, the start of the week’s anxieties into the fresh air, and none of it comes back to hurt me.